Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Self Hating Jew or Innocent Victim of her Environment?

Last Sunday night CBS debuted a TV movie about Yibum. Yibum for those who don’t know is the levirate marriage. That is a biblical commandment for the widow a childless man to ‘marry’ her deceased husband’s brother or perform a Chalitzah – a kind of divorce procedure breaking the biblical bond between them. In our day the custom is to only do the Chalitzah.

But in this movie the couple decided to go ahead with Yibum. I will not bore you with the rest of this absurd storyline. I bring this story up because comedienne/actress Susie Essman portrayed the young widow’s very religious mother. While the storyline was pretty ridiculous I found her portrayal of a religious Jewish woman was not that far off.

Ms. Essman who is a secular Jew was on a program called The View that is on daytime television. It preceded the movie’s showing. She was there to plug it. For the record, I have never seen this show and I am thoroughly unimpressed with it now that I have seen the clip in question - available here.

When Ms. Essman was asked what she learned when researching the role she proceeded to answer it in what appeared to be a very condescending and derisive manner. Perhaps she thought she was being funny. But to some religious people she came off as a self hating anti Semitic Jew. At least that is how political commentator Debbie Schlussel saw it. I believe that Ms. Schlussel is a Modern Orthodox Jew. I can understand her anger and frustration over this. Here in part is how she described it:

On an edition of the anti-male hag-fest, "The View," Barbara Walters and her fellow co-hosts engaged in a vile, anti-Semitic discussion with actress/comedienne Susie Essman. The stuff they said about Chassidic Jews--calling the women ugly, saying they have bad taste in clothing, have "weird," "bizarre" customs--would never be tolerated if they substituted the word "Muslim" or "Black" for "Chassidic Jew."

Taken at face value the description of Ms. Essman’s remarks indeed seem to be vile. But after watching that approximately five minute interview in its entirety I did not see it in that way.

This is a totally secular woman who is naive about the modesty standards of religious Jewish women and the purposes of maintaining those standards. Her research proved a bit shocking to her liberal secular values and sensibilities.

One must understand that if you're not used to it - it can be a bit disconcerting to see how an entire segment of religious Jewish women dresses.

If you think about it - the entire purpose of dressing this way is precisely to be less attracting to men - the exact opposite of the western cultural value system. In western culture - the more 'exposed' women are are, the more acceptably dressed they are (up to a point - obviously). The religious view is the exact opposite. The more covered up you are the more acceptably dressed you are (up to a point - obviously).

Taking this a step further if one looks at how some of the more extreme segments of Jewry deal with female dress you might have a similar reaction. There you can find married women shaving their heads and covering them with a turban of some sort - wigs not being permitted or strongly discourged.

I did not detect any real hardcore meanness from this actress. Perhaps she was a bit callous but mostly she was - at worst - just guilty of a stereotypical view based on her apparent lack of any religious background. Her secularized upbringing and her cultural environment gave her a perspective vastly different from that of even the most modern of Orthodox Jews. She views religious women’s dress as taking modesty to an absurd level. In the end she is a Tinokes Shenishbah… an unwitting ‘captive’ victim of a her environment.

Aren’t we all a little guilty of this kind of attitude? Don't we all do that just a tiny little bit when looking at religious communities that are radically different from our own? That we are not used to seeing? - like the women of Meah Shearim who dress so differently from religious women of even very Charedi religious communities in the west? Be honest.